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Category Archives: Classroom Culture

What Will You Teach Into?

I am a week away from bringing my second daughter into the world, and after yesterday’s horrific shooting in Texas, I find myself revisiting the same fears I’ve often had when I consider my progeny. Primarily, I wonder: what kind of world am I bringing my children into?

As I fretted about this to my husband last night, he reassured me with statistics about how unlikely it was that either of our daughters would ever be involved in a shooting, an act of terror, a horrific trauma.

That’s not what I’m worried about, I told him–not that they’ll die or be injured by one of these awful events. I’m much more worried about the world they are going to have to live in, day in and day out.

A world where a 26-year-old makes a conscious decision to attack a church full of people. A world where this incomprehensible event has become common enough that it is, less than 24 hours later, already being reduced to a sound bite: “This isn’t a guns situation. This is a mental health problem.” A world where a conversation about terror and murder has become more binary than complex. It is; it is not.

I don’t want my girls growing up in a world that doesn’t know how to talk about, seek to understand, or attempt to solve these unexplainable problems–problems that certainly cannot, to me, be boiled down to a single cause or effect.

do want them growing up in a world where we try to talk about these things. A world where these conversations are never taken for granted, where they continue to happen, no matter how difficult and painful, as Kylene Beers writes in “Once Again:”

“Honestly, though, I don’t want tomorrow to be easier. My fear is that this day you face tomorrow has become too easy. My fear is that your students won’t expect that this horrific killing will be discussed. My fear is that tomorrow is just another Monday.”

As a teacher, a mother, and a citizen, I cannot agree more with Kylene. I feel more powerless in the latter two of those roles than I do in my work as a teacher, though, for I feel that teaching is where I can make a difference. I feel it is where we can all make a difference.

This week and every week, I hope teachers are having difficult conversations with our students. I hope we are not shying away from the ease of ignoring our nation’s pain in favor of teaching about comma splices or symbolism or character development. I hope our time with students is deliberately geared toward talk about these incredibly complex, nuanced topics. Kylene says it well:

“No one ever told you that you’d need to know how to sit with children or teens to talk with them about people in churches getting killed by a gunman or little kids in a school getting killed by a gunman or families at a concert getting killed by a gunman. No one. And you didn’t sign up for that. You didn’t. But they will watch you and they will listen for what you say and what you don’t say.”

I hope you are grappling with this and asking yourself:

For what purpose am I teaching?

And I’m talking about a larger purpose than the day’s essential question or the target content standard. I’m talking about how the day’s lesson fits in with the culture of the classroom, the messages we want kids internalizing day in and day out, the life lessons we want them to learn as painlessly as possible.

One of the texts my students and I study that helps us learn to frame instruction this way is Peter Johnston’s excellent Opening MindsIn class on Friday, we discussed Johnston’s closing claims (p. 123-124) about research-based instructional design:

 

  1. Our singular focus on academic achievement will not serve children or their academic development well.
  2. The individual mind is important, no doubt, but as the center of the academic universe, it is overrated.
  3. We have to take seriously the fact that the adult is not the only teacher in the room.
  4. Children’s social imaginations should be taken more seriously. They are the foundation of civic society.
  5. Our interactions with children in the classroom influence who they think they are and what they think they’re doing.
  6. Making meaning is good. Doing meaningful things is better.

We spent time unpacking each claim, wondering how to apply it to our varied content areas and age groups, but dwelled on the last claim:

Making meaning is good. Doing meaningful things is better.

We were reminded that none of us became teachers so we could fix comma splices. We became teachers because we wanted to change the world–our world, and our students’ worlds–for the better.

This Monday morning, I want us to keep that goal in mind as we teach and plan and reflect on how we’ll spend our time with young people. How will we make sure that our work together is meaningful?

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If you don’t already see your work as a teacher as powerful, if you don’t see your role as one of an agent of change, try looking at this familiar work in a new way. Your interactions with children in your classroom influence them in powerful ways. You have the unique power of being able to help them develop their social imagination, their empathy skills, so they’ll never reduce a tragedy to a single cause with an unimaginable effect.

You have the power to choose: what will you teach into this week? Making meaning? Or making life meaningful?

Shana Karnes is a worrywart in the best of times, but an idealist in the worst of them. She is grateful every day to work with amazing preservice teachers at West Virginia University, to be mom and wife in a beautiful family, and to be able to write and think and learn with her friends here at Three Teachers Talk. Connect with Shana on Twitter at @litreader

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Shouldn’t Students Know How to Assess Their Independent Reading?

I have a love/hate relationship with the word authentic.

A few years ago when I participated in the North Star of TX National Writing Project, I wrote my action research goal to align with North Star’s definition of authenticity: “authenticity is connecting student learning with significant audiences, tasks, and purposes.” Of course, I still believe in this definition; I just struggle with redefining it for the individual students in my classroom.

Let’s take self-selected, independent reading for example. How do we ‘authentically’ assess this reading? Shana’s written about this topic lately in posts about too much measurement and alternatives to reading logs. She even started this google doc, a resource for assessing independent reading sans reading logs. There are some great ideas there.

I’m still not satisfied.

A few weeks ago I wrote about shifting control to invite more learning in which I write about shifting the finding to my students, giving them the opportunity to find mentor texts and create text sets we will study in class. I know this empowers students — they want to feel some element of control.

I decided to take the same idea of shifting and apply it to how I might assess student choice reading. Quite simply, I asked students to help me figure it out.

First, I reminded my readers why I am so adamant about independent reading and determined to hold them accountable. Then, I invited students to talk about how I might actually do it and asked that they write down their ideas. They seemed eager to help me figure it out. I listened in — grabbing my camera just in time — to capture some pretty rich conversation.

These are the ideas my class generated.

  • have reading partners that check each other
  • write a summary of what we’e read once a week (Me: “You really want to write more? Them: “No.”)
  • talk about our books for a minute or two*
  • record ourselves reading aloud (I asked:  “The whole book?” They said smiling: “Why not?”)
  • read together
  • summarize in a Google Classroom Q & A
  • pick a line from the page and write about how you feel about the line*
  • write about first impressions when we start a book
  • set reading goals then determine if we meet them by our reading rates*
  • write small summaries (Me: “You really want to write more? Them: “No.”)
  • talk about our books*
  • check for annotations
  • find our reading style
  • do book talks*
  • read novels in groups (Me: “We already do Book Clubs six times a year.” Them: “Oh, yeah.”)
  • write a blog post every week — what page we’re on and something we learned, not a summary because we can find those online
  • require us to finish at least one book every two weeks
  • book talks with our table — explain it to them*
  • write book summaries (Me: “What’s with the summaries?”)
  • check annotations
  • expand on quotes*
  • keep a reading log
  • write a one page summary every week (Me: “For real? a summary?”)
  • keep a reading log
  • create a sticky note system where we mark each hour, a start and end for that day
  • provide an incentive — candy? (Me:  “This will never happen.”)
  • give us due dates, but some will find this stressful
  • give grades to persuade and motivate (Me: “Exactly what I don’t want to do.” and under my breath: Can we give grades a rest already?)
  • write summaries? (Me, sighing: “At least you questioned it.”)
  • show progression through a book rather than setting a due date

And then these two responses:

  • The only way to actually PROVE someone is reading is if they read aloud.
  • You can’t really force [reading] upon someone; people need motivation.

Honestly, I was hoping for more. Something more — shall I say — authentic.

See? Students don’t really know how to assess pleasure reading either. Maybe that’s the whole point.

On that list above, the ideas with the asterisks? — those are things we already do. Plus, more. We study craft in our choice books:  sentences and passages. We pull ideas for expository and argumentative writing from our books. We review literary terms and analyze ways writers use them to enhance and craft meaning. We even occasionally swoon over a particular passage (well, I usually model swooning. It’s hard to get 17 year olds to swoon.)

I still do not know how to “grade” choice reading, and I’ve decided that it’s okay. Maybe I’ll take participation grades when I see students moving through their books at a fairly decent pace or after I confer with them and check for understanding. Maybe I’ll just keep listening in as my readers talk about their reading and lean over shoulders reading as they update their book lists in their notebooks.

I do know this:  The more I make everyday a reading day, a day we celebrate our lives as readers, the more students want to identify as readers.

And somedays they surprise us with their enthusiasm:

Michael came to class on Monday raving about his book. I pretty much shouted “Stop talking until I get my phone and can record you!”

How’s this for authentic reading assessment?

Please share your thoughts on assessing readers in the comments. Have you shifted yet?

Amy Rasmussen loves to read, and she loves her readers. The first book she remembers falling in love with was Anne of Green Gables, but her first memories of recall vaguely  The Boxcar Children. Amy models her reading life with her senior English and AP Language students by reading about books, talking about books, writing about books, and spending money on books for her readers to explore and enjoy. She firmly believes:  “It takes just one right book to make a reader. It’s just that every reader probably needs a different just right book.” Follow Amy on Twitter @amyrass and @3TeachersTalk

 

If These Walls Could Talk

We spend eight hours a day (Ha! Nine? Ten? Should I just sleep here?) in our classrooms.

Four walls, seating for 30 (Ha! 3img_66735? 78? Does flexible seating come in bunk style these days?), and an endless array of inquisitive minds, needs, and beliefs.

At Three Teachers, we speak with full hearts and buzzing minds about the opportunities that Readers and Writers workshop afford. From choice to challenge, talk to Twitter, and many, many elements in between, we explore, question, wrestle with, and embrace the opportunities that come with relinquishing control over a classroom to instead move together with our students as readers and writers.

As I look around my classroom this year, full of some familiar components (budget-busting classroom library, inspirational posters touting the beauty of words and books, and my space age rolling furniture), I also see evidence of my growth as a workshop teacher.

So, in much the same way that one might suggest that it’s what’s on the inside that counts, the following suggests some of the ideas I’ve collected from great workshop teachers, Twitter searches, fellow colleagues, and my professional reading over the summer to reflect the beliefs of our community and what we value as readers and writers:

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I’ve completely abandoned any traditional rules in the classroom. On the first day of school, I joke with kids about their vast knowledge of how to “play the game of school.” As long as we can, as high school students, keep from putting gum in each other’s hair, we can focus on the more important “rules” that will guide our philosophy of learning and engagement. These rules from Amy Fast, are referenced each and every day. Mostly rule #2. We need a LOT of work there. 

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I am NOT an artist, by any means. In the past, I’ve let this limit what I try to do when it comes to anchor charts in my room. NO MORE! With a projector and pencil, I am tracing my way to borderline copyright infringement (Don’t worry, I promise not to try and sell them). This beauty comes from the Disrupting Thinking by Kylene Beers and Robert Probst, which rocked my world over the summer. I wanted my students to have a solid reminder of what their books, brains, and hearts mean to their reading. We refer to this chart that I found through Google Images almost daily. 

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Giving students a place to share what moves them in their reading means we have a constant reminder of the power of words, and motivation to write as we reflect on the great beauty we find through the published word. This reading graffiti poster illustrates the baby steps my students are taking to feel comfortable in sharing what speaks to their hearts and minds while reading. Once I finally broke the seal and put a quote up myself (Thank you, as ever, Patrick Ness), students have added insights such as “When you tell a lie, you steal a man’s right to the truth” and “You can’t take it with you, right?!”I love the brave souls who are sharing their reading lives with us without even being asked. 

The back wall is a revolving homage to mentor text study. Early in the year, my sophomores started their study of narrative by emulating Kelly Norman Ellis’s poem Raised by Women.” These days, creations from my AP Language students grace the walls. They utilized authentic informative writing in the creation of biographies modeled after the work of James Gulliver Hancock in Artists, Writers, Thinkers, Dreamers.

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In the space behind my desk, I have inspirational words that help frame my work each day, provided by people that I love and respect. I have pictures of my family, notes of gratitude from students, and art from my daughter Ellie. I am a firm believer that as a reader and a writer in the room, my story matters too. I love to share with students how the belief that we can always improve, grow in reflection, and benefit from a positive attitude, can shape their experience in English class each day. 


Our classrooms, both full of students, and basically empty, suggest who we are as teachers. I love what mine says about the work we do everyday in the workshop.

What does your classroom say about your workshop journey? Please share in the comments below!

 


Lisa Dennis teaches English and leads a department of incredible English educators at Franklin High School near Milwaukee. One of her classroom walls is painted in a burnt orange color. It’s fall all year. Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum 

5 Lists of Books and More Space for Talk

I am a collector. I collect bookmarks I don’t use and tweets with headlines I think I’ll read later. I collect cute little pots I think I’ll eventually make home to plants, and notebooks I’m afraid to mess up with a pen (from my pen collection, of course.)

I also collect lists. Doesn’t everyone?

I collect lists of books thinking this will keep me from buying more books. Sometimes it works. Not often.

We’ve shared several lists of books on this blog:  Coach Moore’s list of books he read this summer, Shana’s Summer Reads to Stay Up Late With, Amy E’s Refresh the Recommended Reading List, and Lisa’s Going Broke List just to name a few.

I like reading lists about books. This helps me stay current on what my students might find interesting or useful. Often, I find titles that help me find the just right book for that one students who confuses “reading is boring” with “I don’t read well,” or “I don’t know what I like to read.”

With one heartbreaking event after another in our country lately, I keep thinking about the importance of reading to help our young people grow into compassionate citizens who more easily understand their world. Did you see the results of yet another study? Reading makes you feel more empathy for others, researchers discover.

Of course, we don’t need another study to tell us this. Many of us see it in our students.

I see it in my students. My students who enjoy reading also enjoy talking about their

Bookclubdiscussion

My students chose from nine different books for their book clubs. Once they chose, we had five different book clubs happening in one class. At the end of our second discussion day, I had students combine groups and talk with one another about the major themes, make connections, and share a bit about their author’s style.

reading. They relate to one another more naturally as they talk about their books, the characters, the connections. They welcome conversations that allow them to express their opinions, likes and dislikes. They learn much more than reading skills through these conversations.

My AP Language students recently finished their first book club books. I left them largely without a structured approach to talking about their reading. My only challenge on their first discussion day was to stay on topic:  keep the conversation about the book for 30 minutes. They did. I wandered the room, listening in as I checked the reading progress of each student.

On the final discussion day (three total), I reviewed question types and used ideas from Margaret Lopez’ guest post Saying Something, Not Just Anything, and asked students to write two of each question types:  factual, inductive, analytical prior to their book club discussions. This led to even richer conversations around their reading.

I remember reading a long while ago about how conversations about poetry could invite opportunities for solving big problems. I don’t know if this is the article I read, but the poet interviewed in this article asserts it, too:

I think we know the world needs changing. Things are going awry left and right. I firmly believe that in our very practical, technological, and scientific age, the values of all the arts, but of poetry in particular, are necessary for moving the world forward. I’m talking about things like compassion, empathy, permeability, interconnection, and the recognition of how important it is to allow uncertainty in our lives.

. . .Poetry is about the clarities that you find when you don’t simplify. They’re about complexity, nuance, subtlety. Poems also create larger fields of possibilities. The imagination is limitless, so even when a person is confronted with an unchangeable outer circumstance, one thing poems give you is there is always a changeability, a malleability, of inner circumstance. That’s the beginning of freedom.

When we invite our students to read, and then open spaces for them to talk about their

bookclubdiscussion2

This group had hearty discussions around Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance. It’s Western Days. They don’t always wear hats and plaid and boots, even in Texas.

reading, we provide the same opportunities that discussions around poetry do. Maybe not on the micro scale of ambiguity and nuance, but most certainly on the macro scale of possibilities. Our students are social creatures, and we must give them spaces to talk.

So I collect lists of books I think my students may like to read, with the hope of engaging them in conversations — with me and with one another — around books. (A couple of years ago, Shana and I had students create book lists as part of their midterm.)

Here’s five of the book lists I’ve read lately. Maybe you will find them useful as you curate your classroom libraries and work to find the right books for the right students, so they can have the conversations that help them grow in the empathy and understanding we need in our future leaders, right or left.

6 YA Books that are Great for Adults

50 Books from the Past 50 Years Everyone Should Read at Least Once

The Bluford Series — Audiobooks

20 Books for Older Teen Reluctant Readers

43 Books to Read Before They are Movies

Oh, and if you haven’t read Lisa’s 10 Things Worth Sharing Right Now post in a while, now, that’s an awesome list!!

Amy Rasmussen loves to read, watch movies with her husband, and tickle her five grandchildren. She’s in the market for a lake house and likes to shop thrift stores for books and bargain furniture. Someday she’ll be disciplined enough to write a book about teaching. For now, she teaches senior English and AP Lang and Comp at her favorite high school in North TX. Follow Amy on Twitter @amyrass, and, please, go ahead and follow this blog.

Shifting Control to Invite More Learning

569059I admit to liking control. I won’t go far as to say I’m a control freak, but I am freakishly close. As I age I realize I like more and more things in neat little rows, even my To-Do lists must be lined up perfectly, so I can make tiny check marks with my Precision pen.

I am ridiculous.

The hardest part of teaching for me is letting go. It’s also been the best thing for my teaching.

To be an effective workshop teacher, we step aside so our students can step in. They want to know their opinions, ideas, and choices matter. They’re hungry for it. We’ve written a lot about choice reading on this blog, and I know many of us advocate for self-selected independent reading, protecting sacred reading time like an O line protecting our quarterbacks.

I wonder what other choices we offer our students. How else do we invite them to own their learning?

Recently, I read this post “The Inspiration in Front of Your Eyes” by George Couros. He begins:

Often when working with educators, I try to give relevant examples of ideas that can be implemented into learning but get very specific to either a class or grade level.  My focus is not adding something to the plate of an educator but replacing something they currently do with something new and better than what they may have been doing before.  For example, instead of a teacher spending hours searching a video to explain a concept in math, or even creating it themselves, why not have the students find the concept and say why it is powerful, or having the students create some form of multimedia to explain the concept themselves? The flip is putting the learning into the student’s hands, which can lessen the work for the educator.

Deeper learning for the student, less work for the teacher.  Sounds good to me!

Couros goes on to explain the importance of being observant and connecting ideas we find in the world, and reshaping them to facilitate deeper learning for our students. Of course, this resonated. This is how we find mentor texts like author bios and user manuals. But Mr. Couros got me thinking about shifting the finding to my students.

Then before school a week ago Monday, I saw Kristen Ziemke‘s Padlet, Take a Knee. And I got another spark to shift my instruction.

I’d never used Padlet before, so while my students shuffled in to first period, I quickly made an account and created a board. I put one thing on it:  Kwame Alexander’s poem, Take a Knee, which I knew was the perfect quickwrite for the day after so many NFL players knelt in protest.

After we wrote and shared and talked in small groups and as a class about the issue. One student said, “I just don’t know enough about it to know what I believe.”

The perfect intro!

I suggested we make a text set that could help us understand the why’s and who’s and what’s of this hotbed of a topic, and I issued the challenge:  As a class of individuals with a wide variety of beliefs and backgrounds, we’d search for articles that would address all sides. We’d use Padlet as our storage space. Then we’d use the text set we build together for our learning in class.

With their phones and iPads, students went to work, and in the 10 minutes I gave them in class, they talked. Students talked about where to find information that “wasn’t biased,” “would tell them the truth,” “will help me want to know more.”

I leaned in to these conversations, teaching terms, suggesting sites, encouraging objectivity — and why it is important for our understanding of human needs and desires.

Our Padlet What’s the Argument is not complete. We haven’t had a chance to return to it yet, but we will. Maybe we’ll use it as we learn to ask better questions in preparation for whole class discussions. Maybe we’ll use it as we learn to synthesize information from a variety of sources. Maybe we’ll use it to spark ideas for the arguments we’ll post on our blogs. It doesn’t matter.

When we return to our Padlet, or even create another one that coincides with whatever peace-cannot-be-kept-by-force-it-can-only-be-achieved-by-understandinghotbed topic fires up the nation (sadly, there are so many), my students will know I value their input. They’ll know that helping them make sense of our world is as important to me as helping them love books and become good writers.

And maybe they’ll remember to look at all sides of the issues, to see into the hearts and minds of those we may disagree with so we can find a space for conversations.

If my giving up control makes space for that, I’ll take it every chance I get.

What ideas to do have to flip the learning into students’ hands, let go of control, and invite deeper learning? Please share in the comments.

Amy Rasmussen is a neat freak in her classroom but not her bedroom closet. She loves sharing books with student readers and reading students’ writing. She is the mother of six, grandmother to five, and wife to one very patient man. She teaches senior English and AP English Language at a huge and lovely senior high school in North Texas. Follow her on Twitter @amyrass

On Substitutes in a RWWorkshop Classroom

We’ve all been there:

tweet by Mr Minor

If you don’t follow @MisterMinor, you’re missing out. He’s a master teacher, and a master at gifs. No justice in this screenshot.

We carefully craft lesson plans, sometimes with step-by-step instructions, and descriptions of each students’ temperament scrawled in the margins of our rosters; sometimes leaving flow charts to indicate transitions from activity to activity, hoping if are meticulous in our details, and we leave a timer, and sternly warn our students: “Be on your best behavior,” even just a bit of reading and writing will happen when we need a substitute.

When I first started teaching, it rarely did.

I’d never thought to write about a workshop classroom in the hands of a substitute until I got an email from a 2nd year teacher who is newly implementing workshop in her sophomore English classes. Just so happens I got her email the same day I saw Mr. Minor’s tweet.

My new friend wrote:  “How do you approach substitute plans? Do you chalk it up as a loss? Do you leave detailed plans with the idea that once students have developed routines, they should still be able to follow them with another adult in the room?”

If you know me, you know I never chalk anything up to a loss — even in the days when my precise plans didn’t work, I tried to save the day.

Sometimes it depends on the substitute. Just like pretty much everything, some are better than others. Sometimes we are just grateful someone picked up the call. Sometimes our substitutes are used to being left with crowd control, so they think that’s the job.

I speak from several years experience. When I returned to college to finish my degree, I substituted at my children’s high school. I loved the teachers who left me detailed plans, the teachers who held their students accountable for being on task when they were not physically in the classroom. I could always tell the teachers who had established rapport with their students, built relationships of trust, practiced routines, and set expectations for completing work while they were out. I substituted for five years –about half of the teachers I subbed for fit this category of awesome.

Effective workshop teachers are these teachers. Of course, I didn’t know what a workshop pedagogy was back then, and I never subbed in a readers-writers workshop classroom, but the culture in the classroom is the same.

When our students “buy-in” to the community we create around reading and writing everyday, they are more likely to be on task when we leave them in the care of a substitute teacher. Some classes can even facilitate the workshop themselves.

Here’s my tips for leaving instructions for your substitute teachers:

1.Encourage substitutes to stick to your routines. For example, my students read for 15 minutes at the beginning of every class period. I ask my substitute to monitor this sacred reading time by walking the room and when necessary waking up the sleepers, and asking the phone-addicted to put away their devices. (I have to do this everyday myself. Some teens can be so slippery.) And depending on my students’ stamina, sometimes I ask my sub to double the reading time. Many students thank me for it.

  1. Invite substitute teachers to share their reading lives. This is a good fill in for a planned book talk. Ask them to take five minutes and share their favorite books. If they don’t have favorites (sad but sometimes true), ask them to instruct your students to turn and talk about their books, maybe with focused ideas like “Describe the main character,” or “Imagine your book was being made into a new movie, who would be cast as the characters?” I’ve had substitutes borrow books from my classroom library. They’ve left me notes  — and usually bring the books back, eventually.

  2. Invite substitutes to write with your students. Leave a favorite poem or short passage, or if the substitute has access to technology, a video clip that students can read or watch and write a response to. Of course, this ties back to routines. My students and I write almost every day. Sometimes our quickwrites spark ideas for further writing. Sometimes they spark thinking about a topic we’ll explore in a longer reading task. I’ve had some substitutes love writing what my students write. These are the ones I want again.

  3. Trust substitute teachers to facilitate your workshop. Maybe they cannot teach a mini-lesson, but they can give students a reading passage to read and discuss in small groups. They can give students a handout with a short writing task and prompt a discussion around topics students may choose to write about. If we’ve taught our students how workshop works, they will know what to do, even if the substitute is unsure.

  4. Follow up with your students when you get back. This has made the biggest difference in my students staying on task when I am out. If they know I will hold them accountable for the workshop the day before, they are more apt to not take a vacation day when I am gone.

Having a successful substitute experience all comes back to our community. If we’ve built a culture of readers and writers working together to reach individual goals, we can trust our students will keep on learning without us for a day or two.

Go ahead. Take a break if you need it.

How do you ensure learning in your workshop classroom when you leave your students with a substitute? Please share in the comments.

Like every teacher she knows, Amy Rasmussen lives tired. Leaving feedback for student writers, and reading books to share with teen readers, keeps her up way too late. Add in her 5:30 am workout, and no wonder she’s beat. Amy teaches senior English and AP Language at the home of the Fighting Farmers in North Texas. When she’s not yawning, she’s attending her grandson’s baseball games, trying to quit her online shopping addiction, and writing on this blog. Follow Amy on Twitter @amyrass & @3TeachersTalk; and please join the conversation over on Facebook at Three Teachers Talk.

 

 

Building Community Through Tough Conversations

We need to invite conversation into our classrooms, and sometimes that means having controversial conversations. Provocative topics will get anyone talking–we’ve all seen evidence of this in our Facebook feeds–but teens, especially, need to flex their opinion muscles often.

Like any other developmental milestone, kids need a safe place to practice and fail at these skills before they master them. Talk, argument, the subtle art of making claims, supporting them with evidence, and persuading listeners with ethos, pathos, and logos, are developmental milestones. As such, it is our job as educators to provide the safe space needed for that practice.

But as we know, you can’t just leap into the tough conversations a few weeks into the school year–you have to build community, and trust, and a sense of values first.

img_2578Right?

I happen to think that having those tough conversations is the way to build community.

We have to read, think, and write what matters in classrooms. So last Friday, my preservice teachers and I unpacked a tough topic: institutional racism in education. We didn’t just leap in and invite uninformed debate–instead, we did lots of work before our conversation to help us navigate the waters we were about to enter.

First, we read.  Our assigned reading for the week was Peggy McIntosh’s “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” A women’s studies scholar, McIntosh coined the term “privilege” in the late 80s, when this article was published. It’s a thoughtful read, strengthened by its narrative of McIntosh’s discovery about her previously-unseen privilege.

We drafted our thinking in pairs. After reading, students wrote one-pagers about their thinking and submitted them to our class Google Drive. Each student has a critical friend this semester, so they receive feedback on their thinking from both me and a peer. These low-stakes spaces for thinking help students get their initial reactions down on paper

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We talked. To open our conversation, I asked students to speak generally about what surprised or interested them about McIntosh’s writing. Many students volunteered ways in which they agreed with McIntosh, but a brave few spoke about how they weren’t so sure about her claims. One student even prefaced his comments with, “I feel like kind of a douchebag for even thinking this, but I’m going to say it.” I thanked him for his willingness to be honest, and that opened the floodgates for other students to share more readily.

We extended and re-drafted our thinking. After several minutes of back-and-forth, I presented students with a variety of other points of view on this same topic in the form of quotes about institutional racism and white privilege. I asked students to read and respond to one quote anonymously via Post-its.

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They did this, then passed their Post-it laden quote to the next table, who read both the quotes and comments and added their thinking.

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We continued in this vein, then talked in small groups about what the post-its said, negotiating agreement or disagreement with each writer, then conversing about the ways our own opinions had evolved.

We left the conversation unfinished. Because how can you really ever arrive at a definitive understanding of any topic so complex? Our thinking must keep evolving. I have several next steps in mind.

I’m going to send my kids Peggy McIntosh’s fantastic TED Talk on how studying privilege systems strengthens compassion. They’ll respond to their critical friend’s comments. In their notebooks, they’ll write a bit more about how they see evidence of institutional racism in the schools in which they observe. Next class, we’ll discuss ways to enact actionable change in classrooms, using this topic as a starting point for something we may want to reform in education.

In just our third class meeting, our conversation was a good start to the kinds of deep thinking and grappling with issues I want students doing in the course of our two years of seminars together. By offering plenty of opportunities to draft and revise thinking in small-group and low-stakes ways, students got comfortable enough with their thinking to share it with the class thoughtfully and respectfully.

We’ll continue to dialogue about this topic and other difficult ones, revising our thinking through the lenses of our learning and experiences, and discuss why discussing these topics matters. In just this one class meeting, my students and I learned more about one another than we had in our previous weeks of just writing and talking about safer topics. Through reasonable risk-taking, vulnerability, and honesty, we grew not only as individual thinkers and teachers, but as a community of reflective practitioners as well.

How do you help your students have controversial conversations? Please share in the comments!

Shana Karnes is mom to 1.5 spunky little girls and wife to a hardworking surgical resident.  She teaches practicing and preservice English teachers at West Virginia University and is fueled by coffee, tortilla chips (this week), and a real obsession with all things reading and writing.  Follow Shana on Twitter at @litreader and read more of her writing on the WVCTE Best Practices blog.

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